Michael Richardson, Singapore – Defying its human rights critics in the United States, Indonesia said Tuesday that it would buy Russian fighters and helicopters after canceling a deal for American-made F-16s because of congressional attacks on its human rights record.
Jakarta's decision to turn to Russia was a serious setback for U.S. defense companies trying to sell weapons in the fast-growing but increasingly competitive Asian market, analysts said.
The news could encourage other U.S. customers in the region, they said, including the Philippines, Thailand and South Korea, to start buying Russian weapons, which cost substantially less than comparable U.S. equipment.
The Philippines and Thailand, both operating under tight budget constraints, have expressed interest in low-cost Russian fighters and associated missiles, while South Korea has said it is considering a futuristic Russian Sukhoi jet for a major order of 120 fighters to be delivered after 2002.
Ginanjar Kartasasmita, Indonesia's state planning minister, said Tuesday that Jakarta would buy 12 Sukhoi Su-30K fighters for the air force and eight MI-17-1V troop transport helicopters for the army's elite commando Special Forces.
The decision was "based on a study and comparison of various helicopters and fighter planes," Mr. Ginanjar said. He indicated that Russia would probably get subsequent arms orders.
While Indonesia wanted 20 of the fighters "for the first phase, we decided on eight helicopters and 12 fighter planes," Mr. Ginanjar said. "There is a possibility we can buy more in future from Russia."
Indonesia's armed forces had also shown interest in Russian radar and missiles for a planned major upgrade of the country's air defense system, analysts said.
Most of Indonesia's military equipment is from the United States or Europe. Its most recent big order before the Russian purchase was announced Tuesday was for 16 Hawk fighters from Britain, worth about $260 million.
While Britain's Labor government confirmed last month that the Hawk contract with Indonesia would go ahead, it unveiled new rules to halt arms sales to regimes that might use British-made weapons for internal suppression or external aggression. "There is a worry in Jakarta that Britain might cut future military contracts," said Jusuf Wanandi, chairman of the supervisory board of Indonesia's Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"It is good to warn them now that we can buy from other countries without human rights conditions attached," he said.
Indonesia canceled a plan in June to buy nine F-16s from the United States to add to an existing squadron because of what the government said were "wholly unjustified criticisms" in Congress of its human rights record, particularly in East Timor, a former Portuguese colony invaded by the Indonesian military in 1975 and annexed the following year.
Indonesia also pulled out of a U.S. government-funded military education and training program.
"If arms sales are linked by any country to what we believe are extraneous issues, then we will simply find other suppliers," Ali Alatas, Indonesia's foreign minister said after the planned F-16 purchase was scrapped.
In a sign of Moscow's readiness to export its top-of-the-line military hardware without conditions, Indonesia will be the second country, after India, to get the advanced Su-30K fighter, which is considered superior to the Su-27 that China has acquired from Russia.
Analysts said that the Su-30K, which can fly at twice the speed of sound, has a combat range of 3,000 kilometers (1,800 miles), about three times that of an F-16 without aerial refueling.
They said that provided the Su-30K is properly maintained and supported, it should be well-suited to long-range patrol and interception missions in Indonesia, an archipelago of over 17,000 islands stretching for 5,000 kilometers (3,000 miles) along the Equator.
Mr. Ginanjar did not say when the Su-30Ks would be delivered.
But India's deal with Russia in November for 40 of the planes was reportedly worth about $1.8 billion. A similar deal with Indonesia would therefore be worth some $500 million
India has already taken delivery of the first of its Su-30Ks. Russia is expected to provide similar rapid delivery of both the fighters and helicopters to Indonesia when its pilots and support crews have been trained.
Mr. Ginanjar said that the Indonesian and Russian governments had yet to finalize details of the price and payment conditions, technology transfers, spare parts and after-sales backup.
But he indicated that at least part of the cost of the purchase would be a counter-trade arrangement in which Indonesia could exchange its commodities such as palm oil, coffee and rubber for the Russian aircraft instead of cash.
When Malaysia ordered 18 MiG-29 fighters from Russia for $600 million in 1995, becoming the first Southeast Asian country to buy Russian combat aircraft, it insisted on paying for part of the deal with Malaysian commodities.